THE last of the champagne, beers, blood, sweat and tears that marked this season one to remember for Coventry has drained away.
The Butts Park Arena pitch, while not quite yet a field of dreams to match Coundon Road, came very near for those of us fortunate to witness Saturday’s history-in-the-making.
There were several hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments – Rob Knox equalling the club record for league tries in a season on the day he made his 100th appearance in blue and white; a packed stand in chorus of the Coventry chant ahead of their team, my team, our team, accepting winners medals and the National League One trophy; the players with their children, drinking in the joy of the occasion.
Smiles and handshakes, grins and hugs.
Winners on the day, winners across a gruelling season. Winners for rugby played, winners for attitude displayed. Conduct becoming of champions.
Best day for me in watching Coventry RFC for more than 40 years. Only the threat of summer, such that we have in England, could stop the march of this squad.
The author PG Wodehouse talked of the goals of rugby being executed in a manner of assault and battery that would have the common man hauled before the courts.
And it has been a brutal season for the players, coaches and medical and conditioning teams. Losing such players as Latu Makaafi, Phil Nilsen, Heath Stevens, Sam Tuitupou, Olly Povoas and Tom Poole, and others, for chunks of the season meant the work rate for those remaining was much more than initially allowed for.
And, as expected in the final round of matches, the battering those bodies had taken in all weathers began to show.
Nobody gave up. Nobody gave less than 100 per cent.
We lost two games on the bounce, but to second and third placed teams. No shame in that. Losing and drawing is as much a feature of sport as winning. They make winning that extra bit special.
As we saw on Saturday.
Two words that those in the know understand.
On Saturday, I was so impressed with the attitude of the players who have been in the thick of the action, those with supporting roles and those closer to the edge. Bittersweet times for players like Waita Setu, who had a playing season to forget but continued to inspire with his support for Coventry.
The same support from club stalwart, Matt Price, down to one replacement appearance this season, but always there for the blue and white boys. Let’s not forget, that he was key figure in the unfancied Cov team that nearly caused an upset four seasons ago, when promotion was so close, but ended up being so far.
They were part of this success story as much as the record-breaking James Stokes, smashing Andy Smallwood’s tally of 17 tries in a league season, set 22 years ago, with 21. Or Scott Tolmie, the hooker-come-flanker-come-part-time winger, with a stunning haul of 19, many from broken play, with fancy feet and a turn of speed to confound defences.
Because a club is more than just the first XV or 20, as National League One allows. It’s about the people that get so far as pulling on the blue and white jersey, even once. It’s about those lads in the development squad. It’s about the backroom staff, the kit men, groundsman, stewards, bar staff…Coventry Rugby is a welcoming family club.
You only had to see the pride in the players’ families on Saturday. And the fans. And the players. And the coaches and everyone there.
Always a memory tinged with sadness, as some favourites depart. The aforementioned Price and Poole, the wonderfully affable Brett Daynes, Andy Brown and Alex Grove, who has been such a powerhouse in the centres. And Waita, whose time at Cov has been beset by injury, but who was so warm in his chats with fans and support for those on the pitch. A gentleman, a credit to this sport of ours.
I’ve suffered injury and illness that has stopped me in my tracks in recent times, but being able to talk to someone like Waita proves that I’ve got to stop feeling sorry for myself and just get on with it, find some way to fight back to fitness and always keep being positive.
There are others departing the club, too, that perhaps haven’t caught the eye or whose names don’t quite resonate with supporters. They should never forget that they’ve been part of something special and bow out on a day the likes we haven’t seen for many a year.
My erstwhile colleague at the Coventry Evening Telegraph, John Wilkinson, exits stage left on a high, too, having played such a part in saving the club from untimely demise. He wrote about the 1874 men through thick and thin and eventually sallied forth from CET to BPA to become part of the record-breaking machine.
What a way to sign off. Despite the promotions he covered as a scribe for the Cov Tel, I doubt there’s been a finale like this for him or anyone since the Knockout Cup triumphs of 1973 and 1974, the centenary season.
And it might not have happened, were it not for his efforts, transcending journalism and demonstrating a true love for the club.
What also struck me was the dignity of those consigned to relegation on the day. The Hull Ionians players smiled and enjoyed the revelry of their hosts, as Coventry skipper Phil Boulton lifted the National League One trophy.
And what an inspirational decision of Jon Sharp to appoint Rowland Winter as Director of Rugby. For the DoR has chosen well, and proved an inspiration of his own. He’s breathed new life into players, bought into the Cov rugby heritage but shaped its future to his own design; what’s more, he’s managed to get people to buy into his vision for the future – players, fans and the behind the scenes people so important in the promotion push. All have benefitted from Rowland Winter’s presence.
I’d fancy he has one of the best backrooms around, and let’s not forget Hannah Walker and Max Hartman and their teams. They achieved on a scale mirroring the squad this year. The ‘without whom’ brigade, their work behind the scenes can be appreciated by what we have seen on the pitch.
What magic Hannah and Max have wielded has matched the wizardy out there on the pitch.
Team manager and Cov legend, Tony Gulliver, tweeted that, despite the celebrations, several players were involved in cleaning the changing rooms.
An inspirational season – 27 wins out of 30 games, a 90 per cent win rate, 183 tries, 1,213 points for, and Will Maisey topping the points table and James Stokes the try scoring table. There’s been nothing like it for Cov in 30 years of league rugby.
Oh, and not forgetting Saturday’s crowd of 3,758, a new National League One record.
The club is also about its fans. Cov had great support on Saturday and hopefully we’ll see gates like that again next season.
That’s what my heart yearns for now.
Love and pride.